Many of us are ease and comfort junkies. We want a little time on the recliner in front of the T.V. Maybe it’s to watch World of Dance, or maybe it’s to see if Liverpool can topple Manchester City in the English Premier League. We long for the children to be quiet, the house to be problem free, and a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit would be perfect.
How come we live in a world so full of suffering? Some religions do not question suffering. The goal is to accept that suffering simply is and then to detach from it through acceptance. My understanding on suffering is a little different, and that understanding has matured through the years.
- Suffering as Punishment
When I was young, I frequently asked myself what I must have done to experience any unpleasantness or suffering. In fact, I’d think I must be suffering ‘for my sins.’ I would become frustrated trying to make sense of suffering in this way. I would become self loathing, thinking I should be free from suffering if my performance was better. I condemned others who suffered because their nature must be worse than mine. In some cases, I would have an heir of superiority over people on welfare, those who got divorced, or even those who had trouble with their children.
As I have grown older this cause-and-effect connection between behavior and punishment has lessened. I don’t believe karma-like retribution from the universe or God explains suffering well enough. I also do not believe the Bible teaches this eye-for-an-eye system is part of the Kingdom of God that Jesus brings.
- Suffering as Discipline
I believe that suffering is essential to growth. I have joined the YMCA in order to use their gym. Yesterday my wife hugged me and gave a very pleasant, “Oooh!” She told me that my shoulders were shapely and hard. Those results would not be possible if I had not suffered in the weights room in the gym. Suffering strengthens us and makes us into better versions of ourselves. This is true physically, but it is also true emotionally, socially, and spiritually. The coddling we pursue for ourselves and our children is harmful to our families and our culture. A few more bloodied knees and broken hearts might make us more resilient.
What is your goal in life? If it is a worthy goal, it will take suffering to achieve it. As the Marines say, “Pain is weakness leaving the body!”
- Suffering Vicariously
The highest form of suffering is suffering we do not have to take on. It is virtuous to choose suffering for the sake of another. Those of us who have adopted a child know the truth of this. I know many adoptions that are fraught with suffering because of the choices of the birth parents, the sickness of the child, or the emotional trauma associated with adoption. Adoption often involves pain. Parents are not forced to adopt. Does that mean they should leave adoption alone?
Entering into suffering to redeem a person or situation is good, but it does not always FEEL good. In a world defined by feeling, this is a hard truth to grasp. Relationships are often evaluated by the warm fuzzies they bring, but that is not an accurate measure of their value. The measure is whether I am causing a situation or a person to flourish.
Can Suffering Be Good?
The answer to the question is, “Yes.” However, ease and comfort can also be a blessing for a time. The way to evaluate suffering is to see if it serves a greater good. Is it moving an individual, a family or even a culture toward something better. Of course, this short evaluation does not cover earthquakes and volcanoes necessarily. It does, though, help us to see what we are enduring in our own private world in a more positive light. It helps us to train to be better people, and it helps us to sacrifice ourselves to create a better people.
These thoughts were inspired by Colossians 1:24-2:5 where Paul tells the Colossians he has sacrificed himself for them. His life is marked with suffering, toil and struggle, but it is for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul argues that he is a servant, even a slave, of Jesus and is compelled to live his whole life oriented around Christ. If people find Christ, Paul reasons, it is worth the suffering.
Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom,so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.
Peter, there was a time not to long ago that I thought I could teach the class on Theology of the Suffering. Then I became Catholic. They have a totally different stance on suffering. I think you can vouch for 1/3 of the suffering I have gone through over the last 15 years in Phoenix, AZ. That one 1/3 is my adopted child and his diagnosis which we got right before leaving Chicago. I now have a natural born child that was “making bad choices” for years in junior high and early high school. I also have a middle schooler that is ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder when not on meds.
I am still learning the Catholic theology on suffering, but here is a bit of what I have learned. 1. All of suffering can be used to make us into saints if we choose. 2. We must always put our suffering up next to the cross and compare it to that. I think sometimes I have gotten close. Ten years ago I started memorizing Psalms. I memorized Psalms 22 and have recited verse one in tears many days and nights. This is part of the reason Catholics “keep Jesus on the cross”. We must always remember what He suffered for us. 3. We can also take on other people’s sufferings and we must.
I don’t think I could teach Theology of Suffering- Catholic yet. I don’t think I could teach Theology of Suffering- Protestant any more. It doesn’t go deep enough.
But, Peter, keep earning your sainthood-Catholic style.
I also recommend A Call to Holiness by Pope Francis. He has much to say about suffering. w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20180319_gaudete-et-exsultate.html